Kamasi Washington, The West Coast Get Down, and The Indigenous Mind

The Gregorian calendar year of 2015 was a good year in music. Maybe it’s because I had my own personal paradigm shift — a shift where I allowed myself to hear music as it was meant to be heard not how I wanted it to sound. Maybe.

Whatever the case may be, my year was full. Full to the point where some things had to take a back seat. D’Angelo’s return sidelined many o’ record for months. Because D’Angelo had been on a 14 year hiatus, we were starving for his music. And D’Angelo came back hard, tackling current events. For those two reasons, I devoured “Black Messiah.” (Kendrick’s album was just a companion piece).

Oddisee’s “Good Fight” swung me through the summer and Ramadan. The album was a favorite among my children….because Vince Staple’s double album, “Summertime ‘06" could only be consumed with headphones.

I actually listen to music and digest it and because of this when I first read about Kamasi Washington’s “The Epic,” I made a personal note to double back for it. Jeremy Pelt’s “Tales, Muses, & other Reveries” and Marquis Hill’s “Modern Flowers EP” kept my jazz appetite satiated.

So when the end of the year lists started popping up, it was like a slap in the face when I saw mention of “The Epic.” Quickly I downloaded it and have barely listened to anything else since; referring the album to everyone I know, retweeting every mention of it, taking in all content dealing with the album and it’s creation.

Yes, it’s a sprawling album with 17 songs that often stretch beyond the 9 minute mark. Yes, there’s a wide variety of jazz styles from swing to free jazz. The album is magnificent. But what captured my imagination; what had me reading everything I could find on Kamasi Washington was the story behind the making of the album.

It is a story that goes beyond the “how the album was created” story and extends to a story about education and mentoring. A story that includes second and third generation musicians and teachers. Teachers who defy the old European adage, “those who can’t, teach.” It’s a story about a rarely seen unity that is only mentioned in passing when critics and journalist mention Washington and the The West Coast Get Down collective.

That’s because the story is more than a story about a current album or movement — It’s a Black American story or better put — It’s an African story.

The European

Whenever the European explorer stumbled on indigenous people, if they were different (read: an orally based society), the European deemed them illiterate. This isn’t ancient history we’re talking — this thought process was still a modern way of interpreting the world a little over 80 years ago.

The European mind has to put labels on everything. This helps with his or her understanding of what that thing is. And labeling is only the half. Then their nature inclines them to force everyone else to submit to that said label. Things that defy labels or definition confuse the European mind.

The labeling mind, defining mind is also what drives the European to seek to own all that they see and enjoy. It’s no wonder that consumerism is a European concept. The desire to own presumes that their is a finite amount of things — which for his or her mind is true.

The European mind is a linear mind.

But that’s not the case for indigenous people nor is that their mind state.

The Indigenous Mind

Sorry. The Indigenous mind isn’t as easy as to define as the European mind. There is such a wide expanse of expressions — some that are beyond our imposed moral beliefs.

One thing is certain, Indigenous people recognize the cyclical nature of life. This defines their culture.

Consider something as simple as the homes and buildings built by Indigenous people compared to that of the European infrastructure. One is built from (and sometimes IN) the earth — causing no harm to its surroundings while the other is made to be permanent, imposing it’s presence on it’s location.

This difference in thought also determines the method and means by which culture is passed on. The European etches everything in stone — from history and beyond — what is written to the European is fact. The Indigenous mind — the Indigenous mind instinctually knows this not true. The Indigenous mind is well aware that for a story to be complete it needs to include all who tell the story. (think of how blown away the European was when they saw “Rashomon”)

What does all of this have to do with Kamasi Washington? Oh. The answer to that is quite simple. Everything. It has everything to do with Kamasi Washington, the West Coast Get Down, jazz music. And the fact that I have to write that, alone, shows why the back story is needed.

Mentors/Educators/Doers

I always found that George Bernard Shaw saying “those who can, do; those who can’t teach” insulting. Of course, that was the intention but the value of that statement has grown beyond the play it was written for and has discouraged many from teaching since it’s introduction in the 1903 play, ‘Man and Superman.’ (See: ‘Mr. Holland’s Opus’ for an overwrought version of this theme)

I first recognized how disparaging (and stupid) that thought process was when I began taking my core classes at Clark Atlanta University. If asked, most people who were in the film program like myself, would openly admit that they were there because Spike Lee was once a part of that very program. Yet, when Dr. Herbert Eichelburger, the former teacher of Lee, offered critiques, some students balked at his advice, quietly mumbling Shaw’s words.

Of course, there’s little to no filmmaking tradition among Black people in America and thus, no culture. But jazz is entirely different. It is a common theme among jazz musicians to run down their list of mentors and teachers and musicians often swap one for the other as they progress in their career. Art Blakey and Betty Carter are perhaps two of the more well known mentors but most musicians, as they gain experience, take on mentees themselves.

This is common knowledge among anyone who is a student of jazz. Yet critics and writers continue to stumble over each other’s words about how much of an anomaly Kamasi Washington is, mostly because he’s from Los Angeles, a place they say, that has no jazz tradition. But once we begin to peel back the layers of the story — nothing can be further from the truth.

Kamasi Washington’s mentor tree has roots that practically date back to the big band era in jazz. A real quick look, a little to no effort look, shows Washington’s roots go back to the venerable Gerald Wilson.

Wilson’s Way

We’re going to get a little ahead of ourselves to go back. Fresh out the gate, when one throws on “The Epic” their ears are hit with the lush sounds of “Changing of the Guards,” the first song. But it’s the second song, “Askim,” where the string and choir arrangements captured my attention.

We’ll discuss the recording process later but suffice it to say that after Washington settled on 17 of the 45 songs, he sat on the seventeen for a year and realized he needed string and choir arrangements. And who was his influence for that? His mentor Gerald Wilson.

Born in Shelby, Mississippi, Gerald Wilson grew up in a musical home. His mother taught him how to read music by 5, and because of his classically trained sister, Wilson was familiar with composers like Rachmaninov, Beethoven, Ravel, Debussy, etc. at a young age. His first break came with the Jimmy Lunceford Orchestra (house band at the famous Cotton Club) in June 1939. Five years later, after WWII, Wilson headed west.

Wilson began his own big band in Los Angeles in 1944, arranged for Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, & Ray Charles (to name a few). He composed for films and the young medium of television. Later, Wilson took on the profession of his first trainer and mentor Jimmy Lunceford — he became a teacher, lecturing at Cal State (Northridge & LA) as well as UCLA.

Wilson kept learning, composing, recording and teaching well into his 90s. And, while it’s unclear how the relationship began, one of the men he taught would go on to influence generations of music lovers. That man is Reggie Andrews.

Master Teacher

For over fifty (50) years, modern music has been influenced in one shape or form by one of Gerald Wilson’s students. No matter where you look — From Patrice Rushen to Miguel, from Earth Wind and Fire to Kendrick Lamar — there is a Reggie Andrews connection. And while you can google him and find marginal success, surely there should be a Wiki page.

Andrews, having grown up without ever having a Black music instructor, decided at a young age that he would rather help “create more Herbie Hancocks” than attempt to be one himself. So after only being out of High School for four years himself, Andrews took on a teaching position at the newly opened South Central Los Angeles Locke High School in 1969.

Within his first few years teaching, Andrews had the pleasure of guiding the likes of Ndugu Chancler, perhaps best known for playing on Thriller and the man behind the drums for ‘Beat It,’ and the for-mentioned Patrice Rushen; cutting an album, “Msingi Workshop,” with his high school musicians in 1972.

Andrews was still a young man and a working musician. Teaching was taking its toll. Frustrated, he had planned to quit and take up study at Howard University with Donald Byrd (another great teacher/player). Unfortunately for Andrews, but fortunate for the music gods, Byrd had just quit, “forcing” Andrews to stay in Los Angeles.

And stay he did, teaching for another 38+ years.

In that time period, Andrews: produced Patrice Rushen’s first albums, put out another album of his high school band (Locke Saints Band — 78, 79), brought life to the meandering Cleveland group Dazz Band (scoring the hit, “Let it Whip,” with former student Ndugu Chancler), formed the South Central Unit and later the Multi-School Jazz Band which pulled from all of the local Los Angeles high school musical talent making them one, tight, cohesive band, and the list goes on.

“The best educators are the ones that are currently active in their craft; they’re the ones best able to pass it on.” Davey Yarborough

Andrews exemplified the Davey Yarborough statement, “The best educators are the ones that are currently active in their craft; they’re the ones best able to pass it on.” As he never stopped working and mentoring.

As a result, he personally guided the career of producer J-Swift, helping to bring together a crew of dancers into one group soon to be known as the Pharcyde. He also played an active role in the life of Brian Warfield, one half of the producing team Fisticuffs, the producing duo behind Miguel and Jhene Aiko. And most importantly, for our writing, Andrews played an integral role in the lives of the Bruner brothers, Stephen and Ronald, Flying Lotus, and Mr. Kamasi Washington himself.

A Covalent-Like Bond

A lot can happen in eighteen years. A child can be born, learn to walk and talk, enter and graduate school in eighteen years. A wolf’s whole lifespan is eighteen years. Same with a hog and a pigeon. A redwood can grow almost 60 feet in eighteen years.

So imagine the bond of a group of musicians that have been playing together that long.

That’s what you’re looking at when you look at the West Coast Get Down. A group of musicians that have, in one form or another, played together since the summer of 1997.

Going back to the days of the Msingi Workshop and resurrected with the Multi-School Jazz Band, Reggie Andrews historically enlisted his high school players to play the summer Playboy Jazz Fest.

“That night, I said to myself, ‘I am not going to be mediocre, I’ll put whatever time I need to into this.’ It was a major, major moment in my life — in front of 10,000 people.”

Kamasi Washington remembers that has being a turning point in his life — the night where he dedicated himself to the music. “That night, I said to myself, ‘I am not going to be mediocre, I’ll put whatever time I need to into this.’ It was a major, major moment in my life — in front of 10,000 people.”

Although, it’s not often talked about, Flying Lotus’ foundation was laid down attending the same festival with Andrews’ Multi School Jazz Band. Lotus remembers, “We’d learn like four or five Gerald Wilson tunes to play at the Playboy Jazz Festival every year with Reggie Andrews — [we were part of] that whole institution.”

There’s a jazz term for holing oneself away and practicing one’s craft, soaking up as much as one can of the music before coming out in the public. That term is shedding. And that’s what Washington and many members of the Multi-School Jazz Band did that summer of 1997, they bunkered themselves up in Washington’s father, Rickey Washington’s garage.

Washington, the father, recognized the importance of this, himself being a musician, an educator, and former student of Reggie Andrews. Therefore it was second nature for him to also provide an environment for the young players to work out in.

Although the members would go their separate ways by 1999: many of them becoming sought after session players, Washington continuing his education at UCLA where the venerable Gerald Wilson became one of his mentors, the collective continued to come, practice, and on occasion, play out together.

In 2004, four of the members; Cameron Graves, Stephen & Ronald Bruner, & Kamasi Washington dropped an album, “Young Jazz Giants,” in which one reviewer, Thom Jurek, recognized that the album was, “augmented on certain tracks by guests from their neighborhood (meaning that the well is even deeper than it seems here).”

Little did Mr. Jurek know, he had stumbled on the ‘well’ of the West Coast Get Down.

Bringing it All Together

Ever try to organize a group of your friends together for an event? Not on a weekend either — a week day. If you have, you recognize how extremely difficult that is.

As adults, everyone has their own lives. People have children, jobs, priorities, etc and they all vary.

Now imagine trying to have your friends organize every day for a month, turning down work and everything…

If you can’t imagine it, then you should be that much more impressed by what took place during the month of December 2011.

With a schedule organized by Miles Mosley, one of the resident West Coast Get Down bass players, the crew of nine plus members met everyday from 10am to 2pm and recorded six (6) albums and over 120 songs.

As we mentioned above, 45 of those songs were for Kamasi Washington’s “epic” (pun intended) album, 17 of which Washington deemed worthy of using. But what do you do with a 17 song, 174 minute gargantuan, 3 disc album? First off, if you’re already signed to a “major” label, how many labels would underwrite such an endeavor? Even worst, imagine if Washington had to shop for a label to release it.

It’s safe to say that the music would have easily lived on a hard drive somewhere until it was “discovered” many years later. But that wasn’t the case and here is where Flying Lotus comes in.

Lotus, having heard the music, agreed to release it on his Brainfeed label. Offering no interference, only support, Washington was able to take as long as needed to whip the album into shape. A lot can be said of independence.

Umoja

When “To Pimp a Butterfly” dropped, critics ran out of adjectives attempting to describe what genre the music was. Long ago they have resolved to the fact that they will classify all of Flying Lotus’ music as “electronic.” Yet, both “Butterfly” and Flying Lotus’ albums boast West Coast Get Down band members.

Every since my world has been shook up by “The Epic,” I’ve consumed everything I can find on Kamasi Washington — from the two hour NPR concert to each and every review — they all have the same thing in common: their utter “shock” that the music came out of Los Angeles. But that shock exists for the same reason that white critics have a problem categorizing “Butterfly” or Lotus’ music — Eurocentricity, more specifically, American’s version of it.

As early as the 1890s, Europeans saw value in Black music that eluded the American white man and woman. Here’s the European composer Anton Dvorak’s take on Black music.

“I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called negro melodies. These are the folk songs of America, and your composers must turn to them. … In the negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. They are pathetic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay, or what you will. It is music that suits itself to any mood or any purpose.” Anton Dvorak May 21, 1893

If white critics would leave out the need to categorize, perhaps they would be able to have a better an appreciation for the music made by Blacks in America. For as long as we’ve been making music, it’s been nothing for us to shift from gospel to the blues, from the blues to jazz, from jazz to R&B, from any genre to rap. It’s all Black music.

And, despite all of the levels of destruction that have been leveled at Black folk, whether that be slavery or drugs, the very indigenous characteristics of community and most important for this writing, Mentorship, still exists.

Through that lens, neither the music that is produced nor the concept of the West Coast Get Down should be an anomaly — instead it should be a given. It’s a given in the birthplace of jazz where the music is still past down generation to generation. It’s a given in the city formerly known as Chocolate City, Washington D.C. where go-go music continues to flourish untouched by mainstream white media in over 30 years. And as stated in “The Devil Killed New York Hip Hop,” it is a given in California. Musicianship and genre-jumping is as California as warm weather and palm trees.

This was not written to be an album review — the album is awesome. You have to hear it for yourself. Preferably, loud and uninterrupted. And you have to see it for yourself. I have yet to experience “The Epic” live but this…

…is as close to that experience as you’re going to get.

I’ll leave you with Kamasi Washington’s words:

“Jazz is just a term. For me, it’s a very misused term because it’s either too narrow or too wide. What is jazz? If Jelly Roll Morton is jazz and John Coltrane is jazz, then how can you say that Flying Lotus isn’t jazz?” Kamasi Washington

That — dear reader, is the Indigenous mind.